Critical Proximity: Or “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Myriad and Nebulous Concepts None of Us Can Agree On”

Yesterday I attended Critical Proximity, an event for discussing games criticism. Zoya Street deserves a lot of respect for putting this together, as does everyone who helped make it happen. It was a smashing success, featuring a lot of intelligent talks and fostering great discussions. It was great to meet many people I’ve spoken to over social media in person and be shocked upon hearing their accents, and it was great to be exposed to new people whose work will enrich my own thinking to come.

What struck me the most from my time at the event was just how large an umbrella “games criticism” is; encompassing commercial and indie reviews, academic discussion, larger social discussion, personal reflections, artist statements, industry analysis, creative projects made in response to another piece, games created to critique systems and ideas outside of games, and even the act of play itself. The truth is, no one is going to be connected to everyone else within that entire sphere, and no strategy for “success” (be it financial or otherwise) is going to apply universally. There are even people within the “games criticism” umbrella who actually feel more connected to theatre criticism, literary criticism, art history, anthropology or science. It has come up time and time again, but it bears repeating: there is no definable “game criticism community” that includes every single possible person. There is no universal game criticism experience, not even when we chop it into “manageable” categories like “indie” or “queer” or “academic” (all categories I fall into to one extent or another). Too often we fight because we all “know” that there are strictly defined and guarded boundaries, but rather than navigate our different experiences we assume everyone else shares our own definitions. I think that is what leads to the kind of toxic exclusion we see. That is what leads industry or academic leaders to say “there is no space for you, there is no community for you” to marginalized voices. It isn’t intended to be prejudiced or exclusionary, but the outcome is still the same. Even now I feel I should be as overt as possible that I’m addressing this critique to people privileged as I am, rather than assume any concept I’m writing about is automatically understood as I define it.

But the fact that we all have different goals and experiences is ok! It can be great even. If we can move beyond “rah rah team games criticism” and into more conversations, everyone will benefit. There is never going to be much of a direct relationship to what I do here and, say, a more state-of-the-industry-focused site. Our goals are different, our audiences aren’t going to be identical, and we’re going to be judging our own work and impact by different metrics. A discussion over who is then doing game criticism “right” is going to go nowhere. It is the same as all our endless discussions on “what is a game?” or “what is a community?” or any of the other questions that result in a Pavlovian reaction of exhaustion. Even if I am comparing myself to someone whose goals are closer to mine, our strategies and experiences are still going to be substantially different based on the fact that, say, I have tourettic ocd and my brain functions differently, or that I’m white and male and therefore don’t face the same hostility from certain circles, or that I’m slowly learning to define my sexual identity within the nebulous concept of “queer,” or that I’m still perceived as “straight.” But when we acknowledge that, we can instead have much more valuable conversations. Instead of comparing directly, we can view and explore different experiences and draw insight depending on the current context and need. Instead of communities as rigidly bound structures we have the potential for communities as personal collections of emergent relationships. Venn diagrams and families rather than perceived enclaves and kingdoms. Spaces that boost marginalized voices and celebrate experiences.

Experiences over objects was a common theme in many of the talks, from Mattie Brice’s evocative “Games Criticism is a Selfie” to Alan Williamson’s persuasive argument on the value of magazines. I think this idea most aptly sums up the “state of games criticism” or whatever you want to call it. The move away from concrete definitions and fighting over a single, illusionary territory, and towards emergent definitions and the creation of shared, shifting spaces. I came to games last year from a decidedly un-games background, and while that has somewhat restricted me to a bubble of certain kinds of game designers and critics, it has also allowed me to watch a lot of things develop from a different vantage point. I think “games” is more than ready to move beyond any self-imposed limitations. I think it already has. When I began making games, I wasn’t sure who was talking about games or how, but again and again I found that no matter how outlandish an idea or connection I thought of, someone was doing something with it. Things aren’t perfect, particularly in regards to who is “allowed” to be heard and make a living from their work, but the people themselves and their work are all there. The question is not “where is good criticism” but “what do we do with all this good criticism?” Capping the conference, Ian Bogost cheekily evoked “God save us from a future of games critics” but if the future has us moving away from rigid boundaries and into larger, cross-discipline discussions, I look forward to it. A future where we recognize each other as uniquely prophetic sphinxes rather than hiding away as diseased ouroboros feeding off our own filth.

“If everything is games criticism, then nothing is” is false. Instead let us praise the fact that if anything can be games criticism, then we can each be the kind of critic we want to see.

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